Business Irish

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Bludgeoned Mullingar stands bloody but unbowed

Claire McCormack visits her home town of Mullingar and finds business leaders fighting back against the recession

Claire McCormack

Published 10/08/2014 | 02:30

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Standing in one of Mullingar's brand new businesses, owner Mark Gavin says local businesses in his home town are in transition and need to be smart about change to survive.

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"The first thing we should all consider, is aiming to please and understand what the consumer wants," says Gavin as he looks around his restaurant and food hall which have been built in a former Bank of Ireland building, which how houses 520 square metrs packed wall-to-wall with local goodness.

"We have to adjust, move swiftly and quickly whether its technology, food solutions or different exposures to different areas, we must be aware of changing trends or we'll be left behind," adds the former managing director of bakery franchise Cuisine de France.

"When I saw the movement in food and the trend going back to wholesome, locally produced food, I saw it as an opportunity for Mullingar and opening up here was something we could physically do well by paying attention to detail," says the business man who currently employs 30 people from the town and surrounding areas.

But moving away from a 20-year corporate career and setting up his first independent business, with a rates bill of almost €30,000, is not easy.

"It's very challenging," says Gavin, "It's an enormous building, with a big overhead and we need to generate a lot of cash to maintain the jobs and the service. But it will survive with support from the local people. If it's not supported, it won't survive."

Next door, in the heart of the town, a less happy picture appears. Shaw's Drapery Store - a landmark family business opened back in 1875 - has recently closed down.

Owner Joe Shaw says closing his shop five months ago was a "horrendously difficult decision," after inheriting the business from his father in 1995, but he said he had no choice.

"It's been a very stressful time," recalls Shaw, standing beside bare mannequin dolls and row after row of rich curtain samples. "The business wasn't there, it got too costly to run the shop, pay wages, rates and ESB and get quality stock," he says.

Business at Shaw's - not to be confused with the almost nationwide department store of the same name - started to go down in the middle of 2010 but the proud owner and father-of-two hoped things would get better.

"I kept putting it on the long finger," says Shaw who specialised in ladies fashion, accessories and housewares. "But 2012 and 2013 were particularly difficult," he remembers.

After 34 years in the retail, Shaw said the recession brought about a huge shift in clientele and management. Although he developed the shop when he took it over, he says perhaps he didn't adapt enough in later years.

"The age group we were targeting was getting older and older, so maybe that's where I made the mistake, I wasn't innovating, I wasn't into computers and I wasn't on Facebook," he says, adding that the internet is also damaging the industry.

"It's totally unfair, products are being bought online VAT free, and I'm 23pc dearer straight away. If it's coming from Europe there is no duty so that's a huge advantage and it's one of the reasons I had to close," Shaw complains.

Despite the professional strains on the Mullingar man, he is looking forward and said plans are in motion for a new retail business to let out his store.

"I want to get the shop rented out, no hiccups, I just want to get it done and dusted and start fresh," he says, adding that he's considering opening a small household and curtain shop in the future.

"I think there is a smaller market out there for good quality sheets. Retailers need to concentrate on one thing and do it well, it's the only chance you'll have." Since January, four retail outlets have closed at Mullingar Shopping Centre in Harbour Place. And although it's hard to see them go, manager Denis Hogan says today it's not necessarily a bad sign.

"We've had no long-term vacancies since opening in 1997 so I was expecting some would close because of the downturn," says Hogan, adding that current units have reduced prices.

"Retailers need to be pragmatic. They know if a neighbouring shop is struggling, it has to change and be given to someone who can bring in footfall," adds Hogan.

"We're not feeling the pick-up in terms of spend, but there has been an increase in footfall and optimism about things changing," he said, adding "the rental market is coming back, retail is getting more enquiries but spend might take a little longer."

Other business owners in the town say they have finally noticed a slight improvement in sales but are conscious that good weather has played a role. Paddy Swarbrigg, owner of Swarbrigg's Shoes, is one.

"Our line of trade is so weather dependent, if we get the sun it 
helps us greatly," he says. "There probably is a little bit of an uptake - but it's not huge."

Frank Shaw, owner of Shaw's Hardware and Furniture sees huge variation. "If it's a fine week, it's good for business, if it's dull and wet, it's not... overall this year would be 3-4pc maybe up and it's very hard to equate it except to weather."

Other businesses have followed similar steps to improve plans and marketing. Eamonn Brady, owner at Whelehans Pharmacy in Mullingar is another who is trying to move with the times.

"We've completely revamped and brought in new services including chiropody, physiotherapy and acupuncture. It's getting people in the door and that's the best place to start."

With ESRI predictions of 3pc growth this year, things may well be looking up. It can't come soon enough.

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